One of the issues raised by the lengthy discussion about the designation of Jesus as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is that of Jesus’ “sinlessness”. Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.
First, the background argument…
For the writer of Hebrews the significance of Jesus’ high priesthood lies not so much in the fact that he died for Israel, though that is a crucial part of the narrative, but in the fact that he presently mediated in a heavenly sanctuary for the sake of the persecuted Jewish-Christian communities that confessed his name (cf. Heb. 4:11). This is the basic eschatological argument of the Letter: the readers should persevere because Jesus has gone before them through suffering and death, he is the “founder and perfecter” of their faith (Heb. 12:1-3), he is seated at the right hand of God having received authority to rule, he now ministers as a high priest in the presence of God on behalf of his suffering “brothers” (Heb. 2:17; 6:20; 8:1-3), and he will appear in the not too distant future to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28). If we don’t keep this narrative in view, we will inevitably misinterpret the various statements that are made about Jesus, who he was, and what he did.
Tested… without sin
For we do not have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but tested in every way according to likeness without sin. (Heb. 4:15, my translation)
The writer explains in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus is able to sympathise with the weaknesses and failings of a community under pressure to abandon its calling because he was himself tested in exactly the same manner. A specific form of testing or temptation is in view here: the testing of persecution, which may cause believers to disobey or depart from the faith out of fear. The argument is that the one whom they have confessed as Lord and king is also (this is the point of the frequent appeal to Psalm 110:4) a “merciful and faithful” high priest who fully understands their natural weaknesses in the face of suffering.
When it is said, therefore, that Jesus was “tested in exactly the same way but without sin” (Heb. 4:15), the point is that when faced with suffering Jesus was not disobedient and did not cease to trust in his Father. The argument is not that Jesus was naturally or supernaturally sinless prior to being tested, therefore he passed the test. It is that when he was tested, he did not sin: he resembled the readers of the Letter in that he was tested, but unlike them he did not waver in his faith. “Without sin” does not denote a precondition but an outcome, a consequence. This is not to say that Jesus was not sinless in other respects; it is to say that the argument focuses on the manner in which Jesus responded to the prospect of suffering.
The son who learned obedience
This is why the writer goes on to stress the fact that through his suffering Jesus “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8-10).
Though being a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and having been made perfect he became the source of salvation of the age for all those obeying him, being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5:8-10, my translation)
What he means by this is indicated in the preceding verse:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (Heb. 5:7)
This is a picture of a thoroughly human Jesus who in great anguish prayed to be saved from death and was heard by God because of his reverence. It is the sort of obedience under extreme duress that the Jewish Christian communities addressed in the Letter needed to learn, or they would fail to enter their “Sabbath rest” at the end of the painful wilderness experience (Heb. 4:1-13).
Jesus responded perfectly, in full obedience, with unfailing trust, without sin, in the face of suffering and death. Therefore, he became i) the “source of salvation” for those who faithfully and obediently walked the same path of suffering and ii) the Melchizedek-like priest-king in heaven, to whom, on the one hand, all their enemies had been subjected (Heb. 2:8), and who, on the other, made propitiation on an ongoing basis for the sins of his people, who were being tested and were sinning (Heb. 2:17-18).
We should also be careful not to over-interpret the clause “Although he was a son…”. Lane states: “Although Jesus was the eternal Son of God, he entered into a new dimension in the experience of sonship by virtue of his incarnation and sacrificial death.” 1 This is not what the writer is saying. Jesus is a “son” in the sense that whereas Moses was “faithful in all God’s house as a servant”, Jesus would inherit, at the resurrection, the right to rule over God’s house (Heb. 3:5-6). This is, in effect, the kingship theme again. But this status, guaranteed to him at his baptism, did not exempt him from having to walk the path of suffering.
There are a three other texts in the New Testament that need to be taken into consideration.
Peter modifies Isaiah 53:9 LXX when he says that Jesus “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). The Septuagint has “committed no lawlessness”, and Peter may have generalized the statement to fit the household instructions to slaves. Nevertheless, the context in which Christ is declared sinless is clear: he did not sin when he was reviled, tortured, and crucified; instead he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23-24).
I’m not sure that 1 John 3:5-6 actually says that Jesus did not sin. What we have is: “he appeared in order to take away the sins, and there is no sin in him; everyone who remains in him does not sin….” The present tense (“there is no sin in him”) is odd if the reference is to his past life in the flesh. The overall argument rather suggests that the reference is to the community that is “in him” in the present: Jesus took away sins, those in him do not sin, therefore there is no sin in him.
Finally, we have 2 Corinthians 5:21, which certainly looks much more like a general denial that Jesus ever sinned:
the one not having known sin was made sin (or a sin offering) for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
But even here there is a strong case for thinking that Isaiah 53:9-12 is in the background.2 The servant of the Lord suffers violent abuse, even though he has done no lawlessness; through this suffering he bears the sins of many, but will make many to be accounted righteous.
In conclusion, unless I’ve overlooked something…
In conclusion, unless I’ve overlooked something, which is quite possible, the New Testament is barely interested, if at all, in attributing a prior sinless nature to the Jesus. The sinlessness of Jesus is noted principally in the manner of his response to the prospect of suffering and death—it is part of the narrative. This certainly does not preclude the idea that Jesus was inherently sinless, but as in other respects, our rationalist interest in ontology and our concern to safeguard later theological developments can easily blind us to the prominence and significance of the apocalyptic narrative in the New Testament.
A very brief note on blog etiquette
Proportionate, relevant and constructive responses, appropriate to the comments section on a blog, no matter how critical, are very welcome and, indeed, very helpful. Lengthy disapproving lectures? Hmm, well….